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Lawsuit Challenges Radioactive Fracking Waste Facilities in Ohio

Environmentalists say state regulators have allowed Ohio to become fracking’s “dumping ground.”

Ohio fracking protest. (Photo: ProgressOhio / Flickr)

Part of the Series

Cheryl Mshar lives less than a mile from a fracking waste processing facility in Youngstown, Ohio. She worries that the air she breathes is polluted with chemicals and even radioactive contaminants. State regulators did not hold a public meeting before allowing the waste facility to begin operating earlier this year, so Mshar and her neighbors never had a say in the deal, until now.

Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit on November 19 on behalf of Mshar and other residents challenging the temporary approval of 23 fracking waste facilities in Ohio, where critics say lax regulations have helped the state become a popular destination for the contaminated leftovers of the fracking process.

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The groups allege that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), which regulates the oil and gas industry, broke the law when it issued temporary orders allowing the waste facilities to begin operating without first taking comments from the public and completing a formal rule-making process to regulate the facilities. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is also named in the lawsuit.

“The ODNR has unlawfully moved forward to approve these facilities without the input of the public, which these rules are intended to protect in the first place,” said Alison Auciello of Food and Water Watch, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “For loosely regulated frack waste processing and dumping to be allowed on such a huge scale spells disaster for Ohio.”

ODNR spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle told Truthout that the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Fracking for oil and gas requires large amounts of salty water that is often laced with chemicals. The federal government estimates that, every day in the United States, the oil and gas industry pumps 2 billion gallons of fluid below the earth.

The leftover fluids that come back to the surface after fracking operations can be contaminated with heavy metals, fracking chemicals and, in some cases, radioactive compounds like radium found deep underground. These waste fluids are often injected back into old wells for permanent storage.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) singled out the ODNR for having some of the most relaxed rules among eight state agencies that regulate underground injection wells for fracking waste. GAO pointed out that Ohio’s regulations do not require well operators to report the chemical composition of the wastes they pump below the earth, as long as they fit the ODNR’s definition of fracking waste.

Environmental groups claim Ohio’s lax rules – including a recent exemption allowing solid fracking waste to be dumped into regular landfills – are turning the state into a “frack waste dumping ground for other states.”

Ohio has more than 200 injection wells for storing fracking and other drilling waste fluids underground, according to state records. Meanwhile, neighboring Pennsylvania, where fracking has also facilitated a natural gas boom, has eight.

As Truthout has reported, millions of gallons of fracking waste come into Ohio from states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia on tanker trucks and trains, and one company has even proposed barging the waste in bulk down the Ohio River. About 630 million gallons of fracking waste have been disposed in Ohio during 2014 alone.

The influx of waste has created a demand for processing facilities like the one near Mshar’s home in Youngstown, where tanks are decontaminated and fracking waste is tested for radiation, stored and readied for disposal. Other processing facilities clean and recycle the fluids to be reused in fracking operations, and environmentalists have raised concerns about where the contaminants removed from the waste would be dumped.

Issuing “Chief’s Orders” Instead of Regulations

The lawsuit against ODNR demands the court revoke the so-called “chief’s orders” issued by the department’s top regulators, which act as temporary permits allowing the 23 fracking waste facilities to operate without formal regulations.

In a June 3 letter to the ODNR, Terry Lodge, an attorney for environmental groups, wrote that state law requires ODNR to publicize and publish rules for permitting fracking waste facilities, but those rules do not yet exist. Instead, ODNR issued the “chief’s orders” to allow the facilities to begin operating with little regulatory oversight.

“ODNR elicits almost no information from the facility applicants aimed at disclosure of their processes and technologies,” Lodge wrote. “But from even the little information provided to the Department, the facilities are obviously handling radioactive fracking wastes, and that requires far more regulatory involvement and stringency than the Department provides.”

McCorkle did not respond to questions about the “chief’s orders” by the time this article was published.

Three weeks after Lodge wrote the letter, an explosion at one of the fracking waste facilities injured three workers.

“Frackgate,” Earthquakes and Toxic Dumps

This is not the first time that the administration of Governor Kasich, a Republican who views the fracking boom as an important economic opportunity for Ohio, has been accused of being too friendly toward potential polluters. As Midwest Energy News recently pointed out, former ODNR employees now work in the oil and gas industry, and watchdog groups say the department does not vigorously enforce its own rules.

Earlier this year, an information request filed by environmentalists wrangled internal documents from the Kasich administration that revealed a 2012 public relations plan crafted by ODNR to sell Ohioans on the idea that fracking should be allowed in state parks. The documents included a list of potential opponents, such as the Sierra Club, and strategies for combating “zealous resistance” from anti-fracking activists in the media. The scandal quickly became known as “frackgate.”

The public relations plan was reportedly never put to use, and Kasich has since backed away from allowing fracking in Ohio’s state parks.

The fracking waste disposal business in Ohio has also caused some serious problems. In September, ODNR ordered two fracking waste injection wells to suspend operations, after discovering evidence that they caused minor earthquakes in eastern Ohio.

In early 2012, a fracking waste injection well was shut down after it caused more than a dozen minor earthquakes, including a 4.0 magnitude trembler that was felt across Youngstown. The operator of the well was later busted in 2013 for dumping thousands of gallons of contaminated fracking waste fluid into a river.

Fracking, and the industries that grow around it, have supplied some of Ohio’s struggling Rust Belt towns like Youngstown with some significant economic benefits in recent years, including many new jobs.

Environmentalists, however, say strong regulations are needed, because the economic benefits of fracking should not come at the cost of human health.

“Once the fracking boom becomes a bust, it will be the Ohio taxpayer that pays the price for clean-up and health costs,” said Lea Harper, managing director of FreshWater Accountability Project, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “We are doing everything we can to avoid that.”

She added that it is “unfortunate” that it takes legal action to push regulatory authorities toward protecting the environment.

“We are also appealing to the state legislature to intervene without much luck,” Harper said. “It is disheartening to see that, in order to get our politicians and regulators to take us seriously in Ohio, it takes a lawsuit to stand out against the corporate monetary influence from the fracking industry.”

In many states, fracking wastewater injection is regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and some environmentalists have called on the EPA to intervene in Ohio and remove the exemption that leaves the primary regulatory authority with the ODNR. A petition with signatures from dozens of Ohio residents demanding the EPA remove the exemption was filed in 2013 but the agency has so far refused to intervene.

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